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Friday, February 19, 2021

Unfortunate things about performance reviews

If you work at a big enough company, you probably have a performance review process once or twice a year. It probably involves writing up an assessment of what you did and then a bunch of other people (your "peers", as they call it) comment on what you did. Finally, your manager takes this, eyeballs it, ponders their interactions with you, and assigns some kind of anchoring point: "meets all expectations", "meets most", "meets some", "exceeds", that kind of thing. This ends up in a collusion session, no wait, sorry... they actually call it a calibration session... where they get with a bunch of other managers and try to make it all fit the curve.

Barring some kind of major outcry from the people in the room, odds are pretty good you'll be within one ratings bucket of wherever your manager put you. Most people have no idea whether anyone is any good or not, and so they just kind of go with whatever the default is. That's why I call it an anchor, because in the psychological sense, it totally is.

You might notice that I haven't said anything about the work you did or didn't do, how well or poorly you did it, or anything about the outcomes. For most people, that honestly doesn't matter, since it gets swamped by the outsized influence the manager has over the whole process.

If you take nothing else away from this post, take this: a sufficiently skilled manager can take the same body of work and make it work for you OR against you. All they need is a reason to make it go one way or the other. You could have moved Mount Fuji with a teaspoon, but that doesn't matter unless they are on board with whatever you did. If they are, then that accomplishment will be billed as "did something nobody else could possibly do", and you are the best thing since sliced bread.

On the other hand, if they aren't on board, then that same project will turn into "you should have used it as an opportunity to delegate tasks to other employees", and you're a sorry excuse for an engineer. At this point, facts don't matter. They are given two or three minutes at most to discuss each person, and as long as they can form it into a narrative that won't raise many questions, it'll slide right through the process.

What can you do about it as an outsider? First, realize that there's very little direct connection between the quality (and quantity, for that matter) of work done, and what happens in a performance review at these places. It's more about your attitude and how good you make your masters feel about you and that attitude.

Second, you can stop providing any sort of "ammo" when writing reviews of your coworkers. Just stop it. You aren't helping things AT ALL.

About a year ago, I finally came to the conclusion that I would not put anything on a performance review writeup for a coworker that could ever be used against them. Now, keep in mind what I said about skilled managers being able to turn a large accomplishment into a big negative, and you'll realize that's harder than it sounds. So, what you do is you look up the official descriptions of what a person at level X does, and mention the ones that they managed to do.

If they're a 3, mention that they completed the tasks assigned to them. If they're a 4, mention they owned some features. If they're a 5, talk about how they act as an owner for the service. That kind of thing. (Obviously, adjust this for the levels and rubrics at your company.)

Why did I do this? Well, I had sat in enough of these calibration sessions as an observer, since sometimes you get invited in as a sufficiently high-leveled "individual contributor". I'd seen plenty of things get twisted around to further the agendas of evil managers, and nothing ever served to help someone out.

If everything you provide is at best a no-op and at worst a negative, and there's never an upside to it, stop providing. Write much, but say nothing.

If I had to boil it down, it would look like this:

If you want them to MAYBE change, talk to them directly. If you want them to get stabbed by management, put it in their performance review.

Anything you say can and will be used against... your co-workers.

Don't make the mistakes I did.

This is why people join companies and quit managers.